DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Wander the long halls of the Clark Hotel, located near the northeast corner of Fifth and Hill streets, and it seems like the property is ready for guests. 

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The hallways sparkle with chic decor, Pop Art design touches and bright splashes of orange paint. Inside the rooms, there’s a lighthearted rock-star feel, with leather-touch headboards, mod furniture and zebra-print wallpaper. 

The Clark Hotel and another boutique establishment, the Embassy (sometimes referred to as the Trinity Auditorium hotel) in South Park, could bring nearly 500 much-needed rooms to the Central City. They’ve been a long time coming: The developer, the notoriously quiet family-run Chetrit Group, has owned the properties for more than a decade, and has received both criticism for delays in opening them, and praise for undertaking conversions of difficult historic buildings. 

Project representative Elizabeth Peterson said the developer is nearing completion on the renovations and could open the hotels in 2015. However, continued legal challenges to the projects from the hospitality workers union Unite HERE Local 11 might push the work back even further. 

The union’s appeals will be heard at a Central Area Planning Commission hearing in September. 

Nearing the Finish Line

Work is closest to completion at the Clark Hotel, which received its certificate of occupancy last month. The 11-story structure was built in 1912 and opened as a hotel two years later. In the 1980s, the Chinese government purchased the structure with a plan to create a cultural and business center, but development stagnated during the economic downturn.

Chetrit’s plans to reopen the building were announced in early 2012, and sources familiar with the deal said New York’s King & Grove Hotel would be the operator. In March of that year, Peterson told Los Angeles Downtown News that a debut was anticipated by September. “It’s really close,” she said.

A recent tour of the building showed off a lobby that gleams with light gray marble and modernist silver light fixtures. 

The 1914 Trinity Auditorium has also seen significant renovations and will receive its certificate of occupancy by the end of summer, Peterson said. Its large stained-glass dome is being carefully cleaned and restored by hand.

Meanwhile, Unite HERE Local 11 is challenging the projects’ environmental impact reports, saying that not enough mitigation measures were taken and that they require further study. The union filed appeals on both hotels in 2013, preventing the projects from receiving conditional use permits for serving alcohol and hosting live entertainment. This came despite approvals from a city zoning administrator in 2012. 

While the appeal is not based on labor issues, land-use experts said that challenging a project’s environmental review process is a common way to get a developer to the negotiating table to talk about wages and benefits. 

The Chetrit Group declined comment on the legal issues. Peterson told Downtown News last year that the group had resisted meeting with the union because it believes that land-use and labor issues should remain separate. 

Unite HERE does not deny that labor matters are part of the dispute. 

“We look at projects holistically to see whether they are the best they can be for a neighborhood,” said Rachel Torres, an organizer and research analyst for the union. “That includes looking at employees and their working conditions.” 

Fourteenth District City Councilman José Huizar said in an email to Downtown News that while he strongly supports creating more hotel rooms in the Central City, he feels that Chetrit Group has not cooperated with the city and the union in an efficient way. 

Such drawn-out legal challenges to the environmental impacts of a project are not uncommon between unions, city government and developers, said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president at hospitality advisory firm PKF Consulting. 

“The majority” of Downtown hotels have union deals, and even those that do not, such as the new Ace Hotel on Broadway, meet with labor leaders to discuss working conditions and pay, he said.

Still, some Downtown stakeholders feel that Unite HERE is unfairly strong-arming Chetrit Group by leveraging the environmental review process. 

The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council has supported the projects since 2012. DLANC President Patti Berman, speaking on her own behalf, expressed concern about the union’s continued appeals despite the hotels having met city and state standards. 

“You’ve got a developer that is trying to bring a needed resource and jobs to Downtown,” Berman said. “The idea that people who own a business can’t make their own decisions about hiring and employment is strange to me.”

The Central Area Planning Commission could uphold the zoning administrator’s decision to approve the project, or it could uphold Unite HERE’s appeal. It is unclear what next steps would be needed if the latter instance occurs, but it would likely involve a more thorough review of the hotels’ environmental impacts, which could mean more lengthy delays. 

eddie@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014